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The Next Big Advance In Technology May Come From Africa

Toybox co-Founder Kanina Foss says Africa is an ideal springboard for innovation, with its rich artistic talent and traditions.

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Technology, robot, inventions
The mock killer robot was displayed in London in April 2013 during the launching of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which calls for the ban of lethal robot weapons that would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention. (VOA)

From a young age, Phatwa Senene knew he wanted to be an inventor.

He got his start at age 11, he said, when he attached a DC motor to a fan. He then attached the fan to a drill and proceeded to drill holes into his bedroom wall. His invention worked, he said: The fan blew away the dust from the drilling.

“That was my first invention that I can recall,” he said, laughing. “My mom didn’t like it at all.”

He nearly hit a figurative wall years later, when he tried to go to university, but found he couldn’t afford it. His family was poor, he said, and he grew up in a Johannesburg township.

But the now-33-year-old plowed ahead, coming up with innovative inventions, like a data-collecting, 3D-printed solar-powered streetlamp, that have caught the attention of South African municipalities and companies.

Two of his new streetlamps, which are capable of tracking data like noise levels and air quality, are being piloted in inner city Johannesburg.

Toybox for inventors

It’s that creativity and innovation that have also caught the attention of African technology innovators, who are hoping to turn this unique idea into profit. Senene is a member of a new Johannesburg tech innovation hub, called Toybox, that gives inventors, artists and tinkerers room to work, a community to work with, and business support to get their inventions off the drawing board and into the real world.

Co-founder Arlene Mulder, who previously started WeThinkCode, an institution that teaches young South Africans about coding and software engineering, says Africa is often overlooked as a source for ideas and invention. She wants to change that, by supporting local inventors and giving them room to grow.

Inventions
Toybox co-founders Arlene Mulder and Kanina Foss say their tech innovation project aims to link Africa’s rich talents in art and innovation with the growing need for innovative technology in the developing world. VOA

“We’ve been seeing, over the last couple of years, incredibly talented inventors coming up with incredible inventions, but they are struggling to bring these inventions to life,” she tells VOA. “So we are creating this ecosystem and platform for them to come together, and we provide access to the global world.”

In exchange for its services, the hub gets a portion of the revenue the inventors end up making. There are similar places operating elsewhere in South Africa as well as Kenya and Rwanda.

Welcome support

Senene says he appreciates the support. It was hard to get ahead flying solo.

“You can be an inventor all day, but you still need to eat, you need to run a business,” he said. “So, as an inventor, I had to go through the process where you learn about business. And all of that for me was self-taught. There’s no one in my family who would set a path for me, there was no one who guided me, so, trial and error, I learned the hard way.”

Toybox co-Founder Kanina Foss says Africa is an ideal springboard for innovation, with its rich artistic talent and traditions.

Inventions
Toybox founder Arlene Mulder views a project that their tech innovation hub was involved in, a Virtual Reality exhibition at a Johannesburg art gallery. VOA

“Some of the cool stuff our fellows are doing include leveraging the intersections between technologies and the creative disciplines, so that we can use artists to really push the barriers on what tech can do,” she said.

Senene, the inventor, says his inspiration comes from some unexpected places. One of his recent innovations is a “tombstone tracker,” a tool meant to find stolen grave markers, which has been a problem in South Africa.

Also Read: A Study of Africa’s Bush Elephants

“What inspires me is my environment,” he said. “So many of my devices have been inspired by the places that I’ve lived in, especially the problems. So, I’m very sensitive to negativity, to horrible things, and that allows me to identify them, and I have an ability to try to come up with a solution.”

If he finds a solution, places like Toybox will be ready to help him develop and market the idea. (VOA)

Next Story

Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal.

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Amazon
New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (2nd-L) speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

amazon
Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials. Pixabay

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

Amazon
Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Pixabay

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

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Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.” (VOA)